How Kerala is breaking gender stereotypes in school books and embracing diversity

The Kerala Education department and the SCERT is striving to create an inclusive society by addressing gender stereotypes, acknowledging diverse identities, and fostering empathy for differently-abled individuals.
How Kerala is breaking gender stereotypes in school books and embracing diversity
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In the third week of June, Devananth, a class 3 student of the Aided Lower Primary School (ALPS) Vadanamkurissi in Palakkad, noticed an illustration in the first chapter of his English textbook. It showed Sasha’s (a character) father cooking her favourite snack, Unniyappam. It made him recall his father who occasionally cooked for him. However, his classmate Muhammad Nahshal was perplexed. He had never seen his father cooking. Among the 23 students in their class, barely three to four students have seen their father cooking.

“Who cooks for you?” asked Sidharth P, their class teacher. “Amma” (mother), pat came the reply in chorus. The gender roles in the mind of seven-year-olds are not easy to change, but this is what the Education Department of Kerala along with the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) is attempting: cultivating gender sensitivity and inclusivity among school students through curriculum revision.

This is the first time that gender-sensitive content has been included in the state’s textbooks. The changes have been made possible through the revision of textbooks for students in classes 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9. Last revised in 2013, the textbooks have remained unchanged since then.

This period witnessed huge and significant changes in the way people and society viewed various things, particularly about gender. Speaking to TNM, SCERT director Dr Jayaprakash RK explained how they tried to incorporate the changes that have happened in the past few years into the school curriculum.

“The thoughts and understanding of people about gender have evolved massively since 2013. It is pertinent that the newly revised textbook also reflects this. The textbook is one of the learning tools to mould students. Even a small picture can have a profound impact on a child’s mind. Therefore, incorporating gender-sensitive stories, pictures, and situations into the textbooks can help children to develop a more nuanced understanding of gender,” he said.

The initiative has led to the introduction of content that challenges traditional gender roles, incorporates LGBTQIA+ perspectives, and represents people with disabilities. This pioneering effort aims to reshape young minds, promoting a more inclusive society by addressing gender stereotypes, acknowledging diverse identities, and fostering empathy for differently-abled individuals. While the move has largely been praised, it also faces some criticism for not going far enough.

Sidharth, while sharing the experience of teaching gender sensitive content to Class 3 students, said gender norms are strongly ingrained in the children’s minds. “During a conversation, one of my students used the sentence ‘she is just a girl’. I have been trying to make them understand gender equality. Now it is much easier and great to see when the textbook itself provides such content. Many students have not grown up seeing a gender-equal family. So, when I teach this lesson, I can see the curiosity on their faces. I hope they will learn from the lessons and apply them in their own lives,” Sidharth said.

Jayaprakash said several significant court judgements and gender-related laws are also now part of the curriculum. “People have a broader understanding and awareness of gender now because of new laws, court orders, and remarkable judgements. The children need to grow up learning about these developments,” he said. The constitutional rights of all genders are now part of the syllabus. In the language texts, writings by individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community have been incorporated. 

“This should have happened much earlier, I feel. Our family believes in gender equality and practises it. Therefore, my child does not find gender-sensitive content unusual,” said Sunil, a parent of a class 5 student in Palakkad.

Gender focus group recommendations

As part of the revision process, the textbook committee formed 26 focus groups, one of them being gender. Focus groups are responsible for creating a position paper that outlines the current status of the textbooks and recommends changes. The changes are then approved by the curriculum committee, which also has a transgender representative – activist and poet Vijayaraja Mallika. The SCERT director said this was the first time that the state has included a trans person on its curriculum committee.

The focus group on gender, chaired by Dr Mridul Eapen of the SCERT, has 13 resource persons who work on gender-related issues. It also had Shyama Prabha, state project officer, Directorate of Social Justice, and a representative of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

The focus group, which started working from the 2022-23 academic year, met four times a month, conducted a gender audit of select textbooks to understand the issues and looked at models from other countries. They also conducted surveys among select students, teachers, and parents. 

To ensure gender sensitive content in the textbooks, the SCERT conducted a training session for the textbook writers based on recommendations in the position paper. Additionally, before publishing the textbooks, they carried out an expert committee reading, political reading, and a sub-committee reading.

“The children learn about their place in society from activities in schools and lessons. The accompanying pictures are also important. Traditional gender roles are knowingly or unknowingly still practised in schools. The concept of gender intersectionality was not even included anywhere. Similarly, we don’t see pictures of any children from tribal areas or coastal areas in these textbooks. We have put forward suggestions to include them,” said Ajila K, a member of the gender focus group and a high school teacher in Pandit Motilal Government Model Higher Secondary School in Palakkad.

The issue of gender inclusivity cannot be addressed without including LGBTQIA+ communities. The previous textbooks had nothing on the community. To address this, both the gender focus group and the curriculum committee had representatives from the LGBTQIA+ community.

“I was able to draw attention to the difficulties I faced in school, which are not unique to me as a trans person. The approaches of my peer group and teachers, and the lack of inclusive infrastructure made things harder. Our academicians have not addressed this issue adequately. My report emphasised the importance of gender inclusivity in schools and classrooms for transgender, intersex, and non-binary students,” Shyama told TNM.

Shyama said students like her suffered because of lack of awareness regarding gender diversity in schools. “Such students still exist. This initiative will create more awareness and allow trans students to safely complete their education,” she said. The second-term textbooks, which are yet to be released, have content that is sensitive towards transgender people and their aspirations. “The curriculum includes the story of trans persons like Adam Harry, the first trans man pilot in the country,” she said.

Similarly, a class 1 textbook cover portrays a student with disability in a wheelchair. The inclusive nature of the image was well received on social media. The social science textbook for class 5 also had the image of a student with disability travelling with his friends.

Cover of the class 1 textbook
Cover of the class 1 textbook

“It is not only about textbooks, the school atmosphere, facilities at the school, the awareness of teachers, and pre-service training for the teachers, everything should change for better results,” Ajila said.

The draft of the Kerala curriculum framework 2023 was prepared after listening to opinions from the public and students in the state. The document says that over 30 lakh students participated in the classroom discussion. There were also public debates. The discussion topics included school hours, gender equality, need for examination reforms, significance of art, and content load in education. A facility was also set up for people to record their opinions online.

The framework lays stress on ensuring that there is no gender discrimination in language, theme, content, names, and illustration in study material. Illustrations should also ensure representation of diversity in terms of gender, caste, colour, and region.

Drawbacks and criticism

While the illustration of a family spending time together in the kitchen was received well, it also invited criticism. For some it was too little and communicated that the primary duty in the kitchen was still that of women, with men being helpers. In the illustration, the woman is seen cooking while the father is grating coconut using a scraper.

Acknowledging the criticism, Ajila said: “It is important to acknowledge that this picture is a shift in perspective though it’s a small step in the ongoing process of unlearning and relearning gender roles. The criticism is valid. However, it is worth recognising that this small change will contribute to the process. A small change is better than no change.” 

“I’m aware of the criticism that the father engages himself only as a helper in the kitchen. The wooden coconut scraper is not in vogue and students may have trouble identifying with it,” said Sheeba KM, Professor, Department of History, Sankaracharya Sanskrit University, and an expert in the field of gender, told TNM.

Sheeba feels that teaching gender-sensitive content properly is also important. “Gender sensitisation is a burning need on campuses considering the scale of misogyny, queerphobia, and gender violence prevalent. Most campuses reproduce patriarchal values and follow redundant policies. Curriculum change and everyday classroom transactions coupled with institutional policies and practices are the key to instilling gender sensitivity. The changes made in the illustration is a welcome change. However, it should be consistent and actually discussed in the classroom rather than simply lying dormant in the textbook. Having a new illustration or changing the text is not really useful unless it’s actually transacted in the class. One serious drawback is that we are still imagining change only within the heterosexual frames. Queer politics and its demands too have to be addressed,” she said.

Annual updates for textbook improvement

While the gender-sensitive illustration was appreciated, the insensitive representation of tribespeople in a class 4 textbook received criticism on social media. The textbook contains an illustration of the Kurichiya tribe, along with a passage on Pazhassi Raja and the Kurichiya Revolt against the British. The image depicts the tribesmen as thick-lipped and the women wearing clothes made of leaves. 

Illustration of the Kurichiya tribe in class 4 textbook
Illustration of the Kurichiya tribe in class 4 textbook

Responding to the criticism, Dr Jayaprakash said the textbook in which this chapter appears was prepared in 2013. “We have only revised textbooks for classes 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 this year,” he said. This textbook along with those for classes 2, 6, 8, and 10 are expected to be ready by the next academic year.

The SCERT plans to gather feedback from students and teachers regarding the textbook revision. “We will conduct a survey among students and teachers in October or November. Suggestions will be incorporated in the coming year. The process will continue every academic year and we will update 20% to 30% of content every year. Otherwise, the same content will remain for another 10 years without any change,” he added.

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